10/31/2010 sermon: Jesus fills us up

Location: Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Dunn Loring, VA
Text: Luke 19:1-10
23Pentecost (Proper 26), Year C

Jesus fills us up

There is a Native American legend which is so universal that many tribes claim it as their own. In this legend an old man is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is good; the other is evil. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.” The boy thought about it for awhile and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old man replied, “The one you feed.”

Today’s gospel lesson reminds me of this Native American legend because Zacchaeus shows us his two wolves and how Jesus feeds the good one. Today’s gospel lesson tells us that Jesus fills us up and asks the question, “Who will you help Jesus feed?”

Zacchaeus is a Jewish name that means “righteous one.”[1] In Jesus’ day the meaning of a person’s name revealed his character.[2] So those hearing about Zacchaeus would have settled in to hear about a holy man, a man made in God’s image and filled with God’s Spirit, “righteous one.”

Perhaps you have heard the Sunday School song about Zacchaeus:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed his way, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down;  for I’m going to your house today.”

This song gives us the bare essentials of the story: Zacchaeus, righteous one, climbed a tree so that he could catch a glimpse of Jesus, and Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’ life and feeds him, just as Jesus fills us up today. But THIS telling of Zacchaeus’ story sanitizes him for children. It implies that his only problem was that he was short. However, Zacchaeus had a much bigger problem: despite the meaning of his name—the people of Jericho thought that Zacchaeus was not anyone you would want your children to climb trees with! They thought that Zacchaeus, “righteous one,” had the bad wolf too, and the big bad one was winning!

Zacchaeus was Jericho’s chief tax collector. The Romans contracted Zacchaeus to collect tolls, and Zacchaeus’ and his crews got paid by what they collected over and above what he had paid the Romans. Jericho was ideally situated on one of the main trade and travel routes serving Jerusalem, and Zacchaeus was “RICH.” The way to get rich from collecting taxes was to take far more than was righteous.

I think of Zacchaeus as Tony Soprano, the Mafia boss we know from the HBO television series of a few years ago. Tony had a huge house in the suburbs, lots of cars, diamond pinky rings, and neighbors who cringed in fear and disgust every time they saw him, despite him being short and rather dumpy looking. Tony’s own mother tried to have him killed.

The people of Jesus’ day despised tax collectors as turncoats whose loyalty was to the Roman Empire and not to their Jewish heritage. The people of Jesus’ day also considered tax collectors unredeemable because they could never know who they had defrauded and pay them all back. Zacchaeus would have been shunned and barred from worship, except that he was rich. I’ll bet that when he attended worship, if he attended worship, he had the best seat in the house. Zacchaeus was so rich and powerful that a crowd wouldn’t have kept him from seeing Jesus. But take a look at where Zacchaeus is when he meets Jesus: He’s up a tree and out on a limb. These are not places of wholeness and comfort for anyone other than a child! The lesson says that Zacchaeus was short and wanted to see Jesus. I think that he was short, but not just in stature—I think that he was empty and longed to be fed.

We know even today about being up a tree. Like Zacchaeus, we want to live up to our name, to our status as children of God, but by ourselves we don’t seem to be able to do it. We have two wolves and they are at war within us. The apostle Paul described Zacchaeus’ situation, and ours, when he said, “I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate.”[3] We are both righteous, and no-good. We want what a short and empty Zacchaeus wanted: to be redeemed, forgiven of the sins which had hollowed him out. Like Zacchaeus, we want to be filled up, made whole, “righteous one.” And yet, we often don’t even comprehend that we are empty.

Mary Chapin Carpenter described this state well in her 1994 song Jubilee: “And I can tell by the way you’re searching, for something you can’t even name, that you haven’t been able, to come to the table, simply glad that you came.”[4]

We have so many more things to distract us from our emptiness than Zacchaeus had in his day, but we know empty well. and if empty is the disease, we try all kinds of things in our search for a cure. I don’t have to provide a list; we all know this disease. In Northern Virginia our drug of choice seems to be to abandon ourselves in our work or just the busy-ness of life hoping that these things will fill us up. The list is endless, though, and by ourselves the cure elusive, because our own choices often make the bad wolf bigger inside us and move us further from our God-given identity of “righteous one.” After all the things that we do to fill ourselves up fail—because fail they inevitably do—our deep spiritual hunger brings us to think about ways we might become whole.

Jesus fills up Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus must have heard about Jesus. We can picture it: Zacchaeus dropping everything that he was doing and running to see Jesus. But when he gets there he encounters the huge crowd that surrounds Jesus. The crowd is important, so we need to pause and take a close look at it.

In Luke’s gospel there are a lot of people around Jesus nearly everywhere he goes.[5] The people around Jesus are of two kinds: his disciples, and people who are empty inside and are drawn to Jesus’ fullness. Jesus is forever calling those who are in the crowd to step up, be fed, and become his disciples. Over and over again in Luke those who just hang around Jesus—and sometimes even his disciples—try to prevent others who are empty from coming to Jesus. We saw it earlier when Jesus’ disciples had urged him to send the people away hungry but Jesus fed all 5,000, showing his disciples how to feed others. We saw it when Jesus healed the blind man at the outskirts of Zacchaeus’ hometown—after the crowd had tried to prevent the man from asking Jesus to heal him. And we see it today when Zacchaeus tried to see Jesus. But you don’t get to be chief tax collector if you don’t have initiative. Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a tree. He was so spiritually hungry that he became ready to do whatever it took to see Jesus. I see Zacchaeus casting aside his outer garment along with his considerable dignity, hiking up his tunic, and climbing a tree. And when his headgear fell off in the process, he simply let it go and kept on climbing.

So there he was out on a limb. Jesus looked up into the tree, saw Zacchaeus, called him by name—righteous one—and told him to come down. Zacchaeus slid down to the ground so fast that I’ll bet he burned his hands, joyfully receiving Jesus into his home, and into his heart—and becoming his disciple. I see Jesus dining at Zaccheus’ table, teaching him how to feed others.

Zacchaeus remembered the formula that the rabbis applied for making restitution, and for good measure he more than tripled them:[6] “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay it back four times as much.” This was NOT like our bargaining with God. You know the drill: “Lord, if only you do thus and so, I’ll give you (fill in the blank) __________ percent of everything I have.” Jesus was already coming to Zacchaeus’ house and Zacchaeus had already joyously welcomed him there. This was making restitution, showing us the difference that following Jesus makes in our lives.

The Good News is as simple for us as it was for Zacchaeus. Jesus offers us his Body and Blood so that we, who are empty, can be who we were made to be, “righteous one.” When we joyfully receive Jesus into our hearts Jesus feeds us and fills us up. Then our good wolf dances and the bad one wastes away of starvation.

Zacchaeus’ story tells us, that although our sinful nature is real and needs to be attended, it is not the basic truth about who we are. Fundamentally, we are “righteous one,” made in God’s image. Zacchaeus, the unredeemable chief tax collector, the chief extortion expert, has been redeemed, restored—“righteous one.” No matter how sin distorts who we are in the eyes of others, Jesus sees us true, and when we joyously receive him Jesus fills us up and makes us whole.[7]

I wonder who we, today, might consider to be unredeemable, who we might prevent, if we could, from reaching Jesus? This is a subject I know quite a bit about. I had a dose of today’s gospel lesson just last month, on September 23, when “We the People” of the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Theresa Lewis, “righteous one,” for arranging the deaths of her husband and step-son. According to her own witness, Theresa had been a very empty person, but Jesus came to her house in the years while she was on death row and fills her up. Yet a part of me rejoiced that by being executed Theresa “got what she deserved.” My only point in telling this story is to say that when we turn to Jesus none of us get what we deserve; God’s grace redeems us all if we let him fill us up.

When I look around Northern Virginia I see all kinds of Zacchaeuses, seemingly unredeemable yet righteous ones, who need to be spiritually fed. When I look around our own congregation I see well-fed disciples who are following Jesus. I have experienced a different crowd here than we see in today’s gospel lesson, a crowd that moves aside to let all who are hungry be fed by Jesus.

I wonder, though, what it might mean if we each stepped out of the crowd as disciples, to joyfully respond when Jesus calls us each by name, learning to feed others with the food that Jesus provides. Who would we bring to be fed? Who would we feed?

We hear today’s gospel lesson every time we worship here: “Whoever who you are, and wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, you are welcome here at Holy Cross and at Jesus’ table to receive the blessings of God so freely given, of new and unending life in Christ.” Come, be fed. Jesus fills us up with food to share, enabling us to go, feed others.


[1] “Zacchaeus,” Fausset’s Bible Dictionary in Bibleworks, version 8.

[2] R. Abba, “Name,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), 506.

[3] Romans 7:15, Contemporary English Version

[4] Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Jubilee,” from Stones in the Road, Why Walk Music, 1994, in Richard Bolling Vinson, Luke, Vol. 21 (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Pub., 2008), 590.

[5] Casey C. R. Duncan, “Stepping Out of the Crowd : A Call to Discipleship, a Narrative Critical Approach to Luke’s Use of Crowds as a Literary Character in the Gospel,” Masters thesis in Theological Studies, VTS, April 29, 2009.

[6] Kerr, A J.. “Zacchaeus’s Decision to Make Fourfold Restitution,” Expository Times, 98 no 3 D 1986, 68-71.

[7] Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine : Teachings of the Christian Church (Richmond, Va.: CLC Press, 1968), 204-205.

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